Werner Otto: Riding Arenas – Not only for Sheiks and Kings

Nov 5th, 2015 | By | Category: interviews, Media / Interviews / TV tips

 

The German company OTTO Sport- und Reitplatz GmbH is one of the best in the equestrian field but still down to earth.

Sheiks and kings gallop on their riding surfaces – right now OTTO Sport is installing arenas for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro 2016. Founder Werner Otto told us how a small Bavarian business became one of the dominant companies in the equestrian sector.

 

ALTDORF – If you expect gold and splendor when meeting Werner Otto – senior chef of the well-known company OTTO Sport- und Reitplatz GmbH in the small town Altdorf near Nuremberg, Germany – you are mistaken. Instead of being welcomed by a receptionist, visitors are greeted by the friendly company dog Maya. Instead of a gentleman in a suit, you meet a nice, elderly and casually dressed man with a firm handshake. 71 year old Werner Otto does not place value on status symbols, but rather on a daily cup of coffee with a little kiss on the cheek by his granddaughter.

 

Werner Otto and Wolfgang Otto

Werner Otto and Wolfgang Otto

Mr. Otto, you have made a name with your company worldwide, by now your son Wolfgang is leading the business, also your daughter Heidi and your three grandchildren are on board. Are these the perfect conditions to retire?

Werner Otto: Not at all! It has never been nicer to go to work! Seeing how the next generations are running the business is great. And it is amazing that they still appreciate my counsel and do not hope that the old man finally disappears.
The members of the Spanish royal family ride on OTTO-Perforated Mats, also horse whisperer Monty Roberts and Olympic champions like Klaus Balkenhol or Lars Nieberg have their horses gallop on riding arenas built by you. You have made it,
haven’t you?
I can honestly say that I am content. However, this does not mean that we do not want to become better. In our own laboratory we keep working on new products. Furthermore, every riding arena has its own specific requirements. That is why we do not work according to the book, but by all means look for an unconventional solution. Having this flexibility is very important. We build with our ebb and flow system, which guarantees an
automatic subsurface irrigation even laufendem Reitbetrieb, and we build riding arenas in rainy London or in scorching Saudi Arabia. That is why my job, including all the different people you meet, is so interesting.
What exactly does your company produce?
30 years ago we specialized in riding arenas. Everybody knows how dangerous it can be for horse and rider if the riding surface is too slippery, too hard or too soft. Simply put, our system provides a solution to all these problems. The OTTO-Perforated Mats are our specialty – the sand remains on top but rain water can drain. Furthermore, we add the respective sand mixture according to the different requirements.
How come you specialized in riding arenas? Actually you are a farmer’s son…
I grew up in ordinary circumstances and built tennis courts at first. As a farmer’s son – by the way my father also was a horse buggy and riding teacher – I have always been devoted to horses; my wife and I, and later also our children, are passionate riders. If you engage in a hobby so intensely, again and again you are confronted with bad conditions. E.g. with poorly built riding arenas – whether paddocks, outdoor arenas or longing rings – where water cannot drain and horses can slip. It is really sad, but every rider knows the term “mud paddock”. So one day I wondered if there is anything you can do about it. And our OTTO-Perforated Mats prove: yes, you can!
Is it that easy to switch professions? One day you build tennis courts, the next day riding arenas?
It was not that simple. After all, the requirements are very different. I almost set the house on fire and drove my wife crazy, when I experimented with different mixtures for the perforated mats in our basement for nights.
What is so tricky about it?
The material should neither be too hard nor too soft. So I cooked different kinds of synthetic material until I finally found the right degree of hardness. Now if you are worried about toxic fumes, I can calm you down. Our mats are regularly tested for environmental friendliness, tested by the German TÜV and our company is ISO-certified.
And the special shape of the mats?
Finding this was a stiff piece of work, too. I created countless versions until I finally found today’s final result. Due to the sand lock, the sand remains on top despite the concussion by the hooves. Water, however, can drain and no puddles remain. These do not only disturb, there are also horses which refuse the course because of that.
And why do you provide different solutions with different sand mixtures?
Because every discipline has its own requirements to the material. And for each of these we have our own secret mixture.
So not every kind of sand is the same?
Exactly. Otherwise, the sheiks in Dubai would not have to buy their sand with mats from us.
This sounds like high-class and financially strong customers. You can be picky about orders now, can’t you?
The size of an order does not matter to us. We enjoy building a little riding arena in our neighborhood, where disabled children have their riding therapy, just as much. It is wrong to think that you cannot afford our products just because the name OTTO is now wellknown in the equestrian field. We are a normal family-run business that does a great job and therefore gets substantial orders such as the Olympic Games now.
But it is something special, right?
Of course! It’s a great compliment that we were asked to build the five riding arenas with in total 33,400 sqm. However, it is also a challenge. We had to ship about 40 containers with machines and material to Brazil. Logistically that was a lot of work. But for this our experience proved to be advantageous. You shake your head every once in a while because of the customs regulations, but this does not throw us.
You do have a lot of sales partners around the world, your team in Altdorf in Bavaria, however, consists of only 25 employees. Is this enough to handle such a substantial order?
Of course, because our workmates are well-trained and work together outstandingly. They speak 8 different languages fluently, we consult customers on site around the world and have worked almost everywhere – whether in the desert or in Belarus. Those responsible in Rio also know this and requested OTTO Sport by name for the Games. After the positive experiences that were made with our system during the rainy World Equestrian Games in Rome in 1998, the organizers appreciate a good builder of riding arenas. In the past decades, we proved again and again that we live our product; many of us are riders themselves. Our most experienced engineers are currently in Rio on site. Our team will also be present for the test games this summer and, of course, also for the Olympic Games where we will professionally assist the organizers in word and deed.
What is the special challenge with Rio?
Besides the size of the order, it is the climatic conditions. The weather there fluctuates between extremes – sometimes it rains torrentially and sometimes it is extremely hot and dust-dry. This means for our arena: Neither should there be any water nor should it become too dry. The Otto surface really is such a universal genius. That is why it is perfect for this. Only if the arena shows top performance, then sportsmen can show top performance on it.
How is the construction progressing?
We are on schedule. I travelled to Rio several times and I am very content. Moreover, each of my visits there is a real pleasure. The people are very friendly and it is great how you are received as a foreigner. Due to this friendliness and the great collaboration, I am sure that the Games will be a success.
What will happen with the riding arenas when the competition for the medals is over?
This is something we are especially happy about. They will not be removed as usual after some events. Our riding arenas will be given to the Brazilian people as a legacy so to say. That was probably also a reason to pick us for the order. Our arenas are especially sustainable.
After all that success, is there anything you are still striving for?
(Werner Otto thinks about the question briefly and leans back smiling): I can honestly say that the time of Sturm und Drang is over. I’m a happy man. Of course I am thrilled to bits about such substantial orders, but that is not the most important thing in my life. It’s a good feeling to know that the business is running well and is in good hands. This gives me the possibility to take care of things for which I never really had time – for example my work as a FEI Footing Expert where my expertise and experiences are called into action. Furthermore, I am just happy when my beautiful wife wishes me good morning. Then I go to work where I burst with pride seeing my children and grandchildren working with an amazing team that considers themselves as a big family. This is more than anyone can wish for.

 

Family Otto

Family Otto

© 2015 OTTO Sport- und Reitplatz GmbH